Wednesday, December 11, 2019

'Villette' by Charlotte Bronte

With her final novel, Villette, Charlotte BrontΓ« reached the height of her artistic power. First published in 1853, Villette is BrontΓ«'s most accomplished and deeply felt work, eclipsing even Jane Eyre in critical acclaim. Her narrator, the autobiographical Lucy Snowe, flees England and a tragic past to become an instructor in a Belgian boarding school in the town of Villette. There she unexpectedly confronts her feelings of love and longing as she witnesses the fitful romance between Dr. John, a handsome young Englishman, and Ginerva Fanshawe, a beautiful coquette. The first pain brings others, and with them comes the heartache Lucy has tried so long to escape. Yet in spite of adversity and disappointment, Lucy Snowe survives to recount the unstinting vision of a turbulent life's journey - a journey that is one of the most insightful fictional studies of a woman's consciousness in English literature.

This is a re-read for me. My first time through, as a Uni English student, was very sketchy in my mind. It's based on Charlotte Bronte's time as an English teacher at a girls' boarding school, or 'pensionnat' in Brussels, and her alter-ego is a serious and reflective young woman named Lucy Snowe, who falls for two men within the pages of the story. First is John Graham Bretton, a young doctor she knew when they were both in their teens, and second is Monsieur Paul Emanuel, the professor of literature at the school.

To use an exercise simile, this book is like a gym workout. It takes effort, but leaves us feeling fitter in our mind and spirit. We should keep away from Charlotte Bronte's books when all we want is a quick and leisurely read. This is no stroll in the park. Nor is it the sort of book we pick up to knock off a few chapters in our down time. I'm sure our benefit in reading it is in direct proportion to the amount of time we're prepared to pause and reflect on Lucy's word choices, and the apt imagery she draws from all sorts of places, including scripture and mythology. She invites us to consider how her frequent cultural and literary analogies apply to her life, and by extension, our own.

I'd go so far as to say that I wouldn't even take seriously the review of anyone who gallops through, because speed is evidently not the spirit in which Charlotte wrote it. You'd miss too much of what it's really all about. Yet that's exactly how I approached it as a teen at Uni, because we all just wanted to get abreast of our huge mountain of texts and churn out the essays required. This time around, I appreciated it one hundred percent more than I did the first time. 

Most fascinating to me is Lucy Snowe's character. She's so repressed and restrained, which makes her one of the best examples of lonely characters with rich inner lives I've come across. Lucy is great at slamming the door on any pleasure that tempts her, because her experience in life thus far has taught her that fun surely isn't for the likes of her, a solitary girl with no family who has to work hard to earn a living. She thinks it's so fleeting, letting down her guard would make her way too vulnerable to heartache and disappointment. Yet every so often, others are stunned by a glimpse of Lucy's true feelings before she crams the lid on them again.

Reading the book feels like being a recipient of huge trust, because we can't help but appreciate the tremendous sacrifice and effort it must take Lucy to bare all, as she's evidently doing. Reviewers who criticize her personality possibly don't realise that people similar to them are part of the reason why she finds it so hard to venture out of her shell in the first place. She might be super-reserved, but Lucy is definitely no coward. This girl can control a class of sassy teenage girls, and even attempts to touch a ghost.

Then there's the Monsieur Paul factor! Wow, to make me end up liking this guy shows Charlotte Bronte's skill with the pen. It takes just a moment to sum him up as a choleric, despotic little bossy pants, who is out of line a countless number of times. He calls Lucy brazen and bold when she's nothing of the sort, orders her to move away from a particular 'immodest' painting at the art gallery, and throws a tantrum when she doesn't offer him flowers on his special day along with everyone else. (That was actually sort of funny.)

 In the spirit of Lucy Snowe herself, reason would say he can go take a running jump. Yet this guy's earnestness and energy has a way of growing on us, and he delivers some great lines, such as, 'My establishment of servants number ten,' as he holds up his fingers. And of course, he's the one guy who sees through Lucy's facade to her real depth beneath. Monsieur Paul is a good example of how weaknesses and strengths may be one and the same, depending on how you look at them. By the end of the novel, I think overbearing and horrid  have morphed into straightforward and unpretentious to us as well as to Lucy. He's the sort of person who makes me think we should just put the best slant on someone's personality in the first place.

Here's a quick tip to get the most out of reading Villette. Make sure to get hold of a copy with a glossary or footnotes that translates all Paul's French dialogue to English, because Charlotte Bronte tends to have him rant in his native tongue when he's especially indignant or excited. My first edition didn't have it, and I was pretty sure his carrying on would be hilarious, if only I could understand it. Other characters, such as Ginevra and Madame Beck, tend to do the same. I've just splashed out on a copy that does have a glossary, but going through looking for them in retrospect isn't quite the same.

The supporting cast of characters make a great study too, starting off with the furtive Madame Beck, who keeps her staff under such sneaky surveillance. Then there's Graham, who is just a nice guy who treats everyone well, with no idea how hard poor girls like Lucy might fall for him. Yet he's the type to choose a girly girl, which is exactly what he does. His love interest Paulina is even described like a pretty little lapdog, and I did roll my eyes a bit at this pampered princess and her helicopter dad.

I liked the lightweight Ginevra Fanshawe, who is street smart and canny in her own fun loving way. Early on, she realises that trying to live up to Graham's lofty assumptions about her goodness would be too much for her. Good on you, Ginny! Best leave him for someone who's up to the task of wrapping her whole identity in his, which is just what happened. Although Ginevra and Lucy have different ideas about the ideal man, I can't help thinking Ginevra and her future hubby Alfred would probably be fun people to hang out with.

The ending open a whole can of worms for discussion, especially the final page, but since this review has grown long enough, I'll leave that one for another time.

Overall, I adored this book! I can see why George Eliot and her husband, George Henry Lewes spoke so highly of it. At the outset I thought, 'It'll have to be pretty darn good to live up to yours, George,' and sure enough, the more I read, the more I found something very Middlemarchy about it, especially the depth to which it plumbs Lucy's character. Maybe it's even pushed Wuthering Heights off its pedastal as my favourite book from the Bronte sisters, and if someone like George Eliot agrees that it's even better than Jane Eyre, I won't be afraid to come right out and say it too.

This counts toward my 2019 European Reading Challenge as a selection set in Belgium (The city of Villette and the nation of Labassecour clearly stand for Brussels and Belgium)


Thursday, December 5, 2019

Iconic Moments in Stories

I can't help wondering if novels which are considered favourites by many readers have a simple, not so secret ingredient. I've read many books throughout the years, and although I have fairly good recall, some eventually get added to a general sort of story sludge in my mind. But the special ones keep bobbing to the surface because they have specific scenes that stick to the sides of my memory. It's a good sort of stickiness like toffee apples floating at the top of a tub. It stops them from sinking into that hazy, nether-world of books we've read but forgotten. When we remember one or two stand-out incidents, often with clear picture quality, it's far easier for the rest of the plot to slide back into our minds too, because that's how the memory works. So I'd encourage authors to make their books unforgettable by giving us sticky spots. As soon as readers can say, 'Oh yeah, that's the one where (fill in the blank),' that book has more of a chance of being widely recommended, well loved, and maybe even being a classic.

No way is this list exhaustive, but here are some of mine. Just for the fun of the proof, I'll see how many may be recognised without alluding to them directly. Most of them are books I've reviewed on this site. There are a couple of obscure ones for red herrings which you probably won't get.

Example 1
A small, freckled girl with long, red plaits sits eagerly waiting at a lonely train station, clutching the frayed handles of an old carpet bag. Way later in a fit of anger, that same girl smashes her school slate over the head of a brown-haired boy who calls her Carrots. The author of this book surely knew all about the power of sticky incidents, because I can think of many more too.

Example 2
A huge storm lashes a lighthouse with sea spray, and a huge half giant with a bushy brown beard introduces himself to a small bespectacled boy with a jagged scar on his forehead. The big man is the first person to drop the news, 'Don't you know yer a wizard?' This defining moment has become iconic for all of us Muggles who wish the same thing had happened to us.

Example 3
A ragged, exhausted young orphan approaches a stern elderly lady who's doing a bit of gardening. He shocks her almost speechless when he announces that he's the great-nephew she'd disowned at his birth, when he turned out to be a boy and not a girl. She even drops her pruning shears.

Example 4
A young landowner decides to help mow the grass on his vast property, just because he loves the challenge and the pure enjoyment. He doesn't really need to do it. In fact, he knows the peasants are laughing at his clumsy methods, and his fellow gentry think he's plain weird. But he's decided not to care what people think, as long as he's having fun and hurting nobody.

Example 5
A young girl and her tiny dog step out of their house, which has just landed after being caught up in a cyclone. To her horror, a knobbly pair of feet poke out from beneath the foundation. Her house has accidentally killed someone!

Example 6
The young hero has an unusual dad whose favourite hobby is collecting jokers from decks of cards. It appeals to him because they represent himself, and the way he perceives his role in the world.

Example 7
The fuming, jealous school teacher has been after the smug young lawyer for a long time, and at last he manages to catch him totally off-guard and thrash him within an inch of his life! Now the lowly heroine has the chance to step up and really show her true colours.

Example 8
The haughty young heroine is made to feel heartily ashamed of herself. The man she's always admired more than anybody else has called her up for giving a well-meaning old spinster a saucy put-down comment. 'That was very badly done,' he says. And she even sheds tears of shame.

Example 9
An elderly pastor is driving home along a windy road at night, when a shadowy, long-haired figure darts out in front of him. He slams on his brakes, but can't help colliding with the Gothic looking young man.

Example 10
A frazzled young mother, worn out from her cleaning job, doesn't hesitate when a paedophile is makes a lecherous move on her terrified young daughter. She grabs the family gun, takes aim at the creep's crown jewels, and has good reason to believe she strikes her mark. That one is a very shocking and sticky incident indeed. Later on, the same mother shocks her children in another way when she decides to send her son to school, denying her daughter the opportunity. They're both furious, because he hates studying and she dearly loves to learn.

The answers, in scrambled order.
Emma, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, A Tree Grows in Brooklyn, Harry Potter and the Philosopher's Stone, Anna Karenina, David Copperfield, Anne of Green Gables, The Solitaire Mystery, Our Mutual Friend. (For the tenth and final, I've slipped in one of my own because it's title is Best Forgotten, a name which ironically suits this challenge, because I hope the incident I chose is a sticky one which won't be forgotten.) See how you go matching them up. And if you feel like joining the fun, you might like to suggest a mystery iconic incident in the comments, and see if we can figure out where it comes from.  


Wednesday, November 27, 2019

'Northanger Abbey' by Jane Austen

Jane Austen's first novel—published posthumously in 1818—tells the story of Catherine Morland and her dangerously sweet nature, innocence, and sometime self-delusion. Though Austen's fallible heroine is repeatedly drawn into scrapes while vacationing at Bath and during her subsequent visit to Northanger Abbey, Catherine eventually triumphs, blossoming into a discerning woman who learns truths about love, life, and the heady power of literature. The satirical novel pokes fun at the gothic novel while earnestly emphasizing caution to the female sex.

This is my first re-read in years, and I don't think I ever appreciated the treasure this book is. It slips under the radar so often, I can't remember ever hearing anyone call it their favourite Austen, but I might have to change that.

On the surface, a basic plot outline could sound a bit boring. A gullible teenage bookworm visits Bath for the first time, then gets to stay with new friends at their home; a restored Medieval abbey. Her imagination runs wild, and she starts fancying she's really in a creepy Gothic thriller like the trashy novels she reads, which puts her in some awkward situations. This book is so much more than its summary though. It's a brilliant, finely-nuanced character study that held my attention every second.

Firstly, Catherine is a breath of fresh air. She never picks up on hints of what's really going on, but reads a lot into what isn't. She's a former tomboy who admires high achievers but never aspires to be anything special herself. A girl after my own heart. It makes her stand out among the crowds of novel heroines who were written to be 'novel' in the most extraordinary sense of the word. Many authors seem to share the implicit understanding that main characters must be important or unusual to deserve a following. To me, Catherine Morland is unique especially because of her ordinariness. In the world of literature, super-average is super-special.

She's fun because she's so limited in her way of thinking. Catherine has only ever been around kindly, straightforward country people, who have helped shape her own character. So she meets each new acquaintance in Bath assuming they'll be just the same. In other words, Catherine thinks everyone else is looking at the world through her own good-natured lens. The gold-diggers, self-seekers and fortune hunters who cross her path are able to fool her for a long time, because she's simply too sweet to recognise their true colours. And her first friends, sister and brother duo Isabella and John Thorpe are definitely not 'what you see is what you get' type of people.

Isabella is a pretentious social climber, and expert in the art of backhanded compliments. ('Miss Andrews is so beautiful, I can't think why the men don't like her.') She's always on the lookout for the next best friend or boyfriend to boost her own image, and will dispense with the last in a flash. But Catherine, being Catherine, accepts Isabella's statements on face value and believes what she says she means rather than what she does mean, which is often the complete opposite. It's easy to form pictures of Isabella as we read. I can imagine her sweeping along beside Catherine, peering around at the same time for anyone better to impress.

And John Thorpe is his sister's male counterpart, a show-off and wind-bag who's always contradicting himself depending on the image he wishes to convey in the moment. He's a crashing bore and the suitor from hell, yet for so long, Catherine doesn't even realise he has designs on her. (She gets off lighter than her brother James, who actually gets engaged to the two-faced Isabella. James has his own case of the Morland family naivety, and manages to dodge a bullet.)

A good Regency novel has to have a great hero, and smart-aleck Henry Tilney ticks my boxes. I can imagine he might seem too big a stirrer for some. He's the master of pay-outs, and the sort of guy to set eyes rolling. But I give Henry my thumbs up for recognising Catherine's good nature. He's a sound judge of character, even if she isn't. A huge part of his dawning fondness for her is because he appreciates the way she attributes the best and purest motives to others. In a world where so many guys pursue young girls because they're 'hot', kudos to Henry for being attracted to Catherine for a higher reason!

His father is a well-drawn character too, giving off all sorts of intimidating vibes. He's a bit like Andrei and Marya's formidable dad in War and Peace, and also has something in common with the Azkaban dementors of Harry Potter. A real fun-damper and soul-sucker is this guy. But he takes a shine to Catherine for a reason we discover as we read. He and she are total opposites in every way but one. They both assume everyone looks at the world from their point of view. General Tilney guesses everyone is mercenary to their core, with pound notes for eyeballs. I love it when he shows Catherine over his property assuming she's summing up the potential value, while all she's thinking about is spooky stories.

Getting back to her passion for reading, the bookish bits are fascinating to any reader. My house is full of Harry Potter fans, but for our counterparts of the early nineteenth century, it was all about creepy, formulaic Gothic novels like Anne Radcliffe's The Mystery of Udolpho. A fan is always a fan. So Catherine and Isabella's, 'Hurry up and read the next chapter of Udolpho,' translates to, 'Have you seen the latest episode of Riverdale yet?' What cool evidence that impressionable young fan girls never really change. And it's nice that Jane Austen was actually doing a pretty good P.R. job for Anne Radcliffe. I wonder what she'd think of our current fandoms. I know J.K. Rowling has called Austen one of her favourite authors, and I'm sure Jane would return the favour.

Anyway, I loved every minute, and I'll finish off with one of Catherine's unintentional witticisms. 'I cannot speak well enough to be unintelligible.' I'm with you on that one, Catherine, but although she'll never be an academic waffler, she's learned a lot about detecting ulterior motives by the end of the story. .


Wednesday, November 20, 2019

'The Three Musketeers' by Alexandre Dumas

This swashbuckling epic of chivalry, honor, and derring-do, set in France during the 1620s, is richly populated with romantic heroes, unattainable heroines, kings, queens, cavaliers, and criminals in a whirl of adventure, espionage, conspiracy, murder, vengeance, love, scandal, and suspense. Dumas transforms minor historical figures into larger- than-life characters: the Comte d’Artagnan, an impetuous young man in pursuit of glory; the beguilingly evil seductress “Milady”; the powerful and devious Cardinal Richelieu; the weak King Louis XIII and his unhappy queen—and, of course, the three musketeers themselves, Athos, Porthos, and Aramis, whose motto “all for one, one for all” has come to epitomize devoted friendship. With a plot that delivers stolen diamonds, masked balls, purloined letters, and, of course, great bouts of swordplay, The Three Musketeers is eternally entertaining.

I don't think Alexandre Dumas cared one whit about literary excellence or anything like that. He just wanted to tell a good yarn, full of duels, waxed moustaches, and prickly, swashbuckling heroes. It took me a chapter or two to get used to the 'slay people as soon as you look at them' mindset, but then we were off. Seriously though, wasn't life-expectancy already short enough in the seventeenth century without cutting it even shorter?

The action takes place over about eighteen months, and never stops. Our boy d'Artagnan is an 18-year-old with a super-touchy, 'Do you want a piece of me?' attitude that gets him in loads of strife. Luckily for him, he has the skillful moves to wriggle out of it, sometimes by the skin of his teeth. He leaves his father's house with the intention of making his fortune, and has a letter of introduction to Monsieur de-Treville, in whose foyer he first meets the three buddies, Athos, Porthos and Aramis. D'Artagnan manages to accidentally offend each of them separately within the space of ten minutes, but after a few hiccups, the four of them become inseparable, getting embroiled in all sorts of delicate political and romantic jams.

One of their first quests is to recover a dozen diamond studs to save their queen's honour. She'd given them to her lover, the Duke of Buckingham, and now the jealous king is onto it.

Athos is the little gang's suave, enigmatic mentor, concealing his true identity and a troubled past which has sworn him off women. Porthos is the guy with self-esteem issues, coming off as a big, brash show-off. And Aramis is the modest chap who never boasts, but quietly aces everything he attempts. And he claims his real passion is the church. He's just filling in time musketeering until he's written his theology thesis.

The story was serialised in 1844, but set in 1625. Dumas took the liberty of crafting his adventure story around the true lives of people from history. An odd 220 years was still recent enough for readers to remember stories of Louis XIII, his lonely Austrian queen Anne, Cardinal Richelieu and the English Duke of Buckingham. Yet it was far enough in the past for him to stretch the truth to snapping point without getting in trouble. That's the feeling I get anyway. I doubt the real Cardinal was quite so crafty, or the Duke such a Playboy with nerve enough to seduce a foreign queen on her own turf. (For that matter, would Anne of Austria have really given her secret lover a string of diamond studs which was a birthday present from her husband? A tacky lack of judgement, for such an elegant lady.)

The biggest villain is a piece of work known as 'Milady', who's like a composite of Queen Jezebel, Bellatrix L'Estrange and Narnia's White Witch. Those who know her never, ever mess with her, but the naive, 20-year-old d'Artagnan does, putting him at the top of her hit list. This story suggests to me the habit of teenagers going off to seek their fortune is flawed, because they aren't wise enough! A guy who knows a certain woman is a monster, yet still jumps into bed with her, because he's too amorous to run away as fast as he can urgently needs his mother's input.

The dark humour is so black a shade at times, that we get invested in quests and relationships to be taken off guard. Towards the end I was blinking and mumbling, 'Whoa, that's a bit rough.'

Overall, I really wasn't a huge fan. Slapstick and tragedy aren't my favourite genres, and this yarn is like some strange hybrid that incorporates both. I doubt I'll ever read it again, but having said that, I found myself grinning a lot all the way through. I stumbled across C.S. Lewis' opinion in a book of essays, and he mentioned that The Three Musketeers holds no appeal for him because the pace gallops non-stop at the expense of atmosphere building. For example, when they cross the channel, there's no sense that London differs from Paris in any way. Most likely, d'Artagnan doesn't stop long enough to blink and take it in. Lewis says, 'There's no rest from the adventures. One's nose is kept ruthless in the grindstone.' I get where he's coming from.

Close to the very end, Athos give d'Artagnan a piece of elder brotherly advice that's intended to help him put things in perspective and move on. In general, it's a great sentiment that's transferable to the reader. He says, 'You are young, and your bitter recollections have time to change themselves to sweet remembrances.' It was such a wise thing for Athos to say, but in d'Artagnan's case, I don't really buy it. After all that went down, I'd suggest what the poor kid needs is hours of trauma counselling for a whopping case of PTSD. But maybe that's the difference between the twenty-first and seventeenth centuries.


Wednesday, November 13, 2019

Give Them Another Chance

Nobody wants to be that inflexible critic who makes a snap judgement and sticks to it, refusing to consider any further evidence. Yet as a reader, I've decided to beware of this tendency, because if there's one thing our pastime encourages it's this type of rigidity. Perhaps we read one book by a specific author, give it the thumbs down, then avoid their body of work from then on. For all we'll ever know, their other books might be fantastic. It seems generous to at least make allowances for talent development, or further improvement. I don't want my eyes to glaze over when I hear certain authors' names mentioned, so I've decided to push past a dozen one-book-verdicts, and give their authors at least a second chance.  

G.K. Chesterton
I thought The Napoleon of Notting Hill crossed a line into wacky and weird. It's so ludicrous that any John Doe can be crowned king in this version of Victorian London, let alone the uproar that followed. Chesterton stretched the concept of a sense of humour to snapping point. My verdict was 'too ridiculous for many stars but too thought provoking for few', and I didn't intend to read any more from him. But his reputation as a great mind and top theologian lingers on over a century after he wrote, so I've decided to try The Man who was Thursday.

Robert Louis Stevenson
Strange Case of Dr Jekyll & Mr Hyde was a tad too predictable of course, which I admit isn't Stevenson's fault. He can't help it if everyone knows big spoilers for his story before we even turn a page. What he was responsible for though, is creating shallow characters we didn't spend long enough with to care for. For example, we only really got to know the eyepiece of the story, John Gabriel Utterson, in his lawyer capacity. And of course, Stevenson isn't an author who includes many females in his stories. Male-heavy stories are a bit... well, male-heavy. It was more than enough for me at the time, but I've decided it's too hasty to dismiss a great classic author on the basis of such a short story. So I'll try Kidnapped or Treasure Island.  

Truman Capote
The plot of Breakfast at Tiffany's didn't wow me. The whole story revolves around the charisma of Holly Golightly, but I found her to be a condescending pain in the neck. The up-in-the-air conclusion was presumably meant to intrigue readers, but I wasn't invested enough in this girl to be care what happened to her. It was disappointing after I'd built myself up to expect something enjoyable, but I've had In Cold Blood recommended to me as Capote's real masterpiece. So I'll give him another chance and add it to my reading list.

Frances Hodgson Burnett
I was so peeved by the moralistic tone and horrific subtext of The Secret Garden that the wholesome beauty, and healing nature of the garden wasn't enough to make up for it. The fact that a 10-year-old boy like Colin, with basically nothing wrong with him, could lie in bed all that time, coddled by resentful adults and thinking he's an invalid was appalling! All the author interjections about what unpleasant children Mary and Colin were rubbed me the wrong way too. Look what they'd been through! Mary was the sole survivor of a cholera epidemic! They had good reason not to be the sweet little kids everyone seemed to expect. So I finished the story feeling irritated instead of charmed, as we were meant to be. But perhaps I'll see what Burnett delivers in A Little Princess.

Alexandre Dumas
The Black Tulip was amusing and farcical, with an exaggerated cartoonish quality, but not necessarily a real page turner. I was prepared to just grin whenever I thought of Dumas in the future, and say no thanks to any more opportunities to read him. But perhaps it's unfair to judge a man on the basis of one of his less famous works, when he's written so many more big name titles. I'm going to try The Three Musketeers. 

John Steinbeck 
When I was in Year 12 at school, I had to read the tragic trio that was The Grapes of Wrath, Of Mice and Men and The Pearl. The last one especially was too traumatic for my teenage heart, and upset me for ages. It was a tough year, and having to wade through Steinbeck didn't make it any easier. Writing essays about these books was a continual drain on my time and energy. It left me with a prejudice against him that's lasted for decades. But perhaps I should make allowances for the stress of the final year of school, and give him another try. I've been recommended to tackle The Grapes of Wrath again, but I might start with East of Eden.

Jules Verne
Phileas Fogg's attitude in Around the World in 80 Days simply annoyed me. He struck me as a demanding fop, plain and simple. Perhaps the fact that I'd love to travel around the world has something to do with it. Closing the train windows so he couldn't see any of the wonderful scenery that zipped past, because he was so intent on his wager, just capped it off for me. Come on man, if you get a chance to be a tourist, then see the sights! Or give the opportunity for extensive travel to someone who'll be at least interested enough to look! He was fortunate to have such a good-natured man servant as Passepartout. But I'll risk being annoyed by character quirks again and read Journey to the Centre of the Earth. 

Ernest Hemingway 
The Old Man & the Sea struck me a very easy win of a Pulitzer Prize, and Hemingway seemed very grouchy in his response to readers adulation. The book itself is short, anti-climactic, sort of uneventful, and plain depressing. But I've heard A Moveable Feast spoken highly of, so might read it.

Kazuo Ishiguro
The Remains of the Day was an okay read, but the reflective, melancholic, anti-climactic feel to the story didn't make me want to rush out and find his other works. It might be easy to never look for another one again, unless I remind myself to with a personal challenge like this. I think The Buried Giant and Nocturnes have had plenty of praise, so might choose one of them.

Chaim Potok
I simply didn't feel I was the target audience for My Name is Asher Lev. I'm not a Jew or an artist, so lots of the insight soared right over my head. When the thought of reading more of his books occurred to me, I thought, 'No, they're not for me,' literally. In other words, I meant it from Chaim Potok's point of view rather than mine. However, I can't deny there were some awesome moments in the story, and he's been spoken of so highly by many others who also aren't Jews or artists, I'll have another go. This time, I'll try The Chosen. 

Diane Setterfield
This is my bravest forage out into the field of second chances, because I really, really, many times really disliked her first book, The Thirteenth Tale. I found it melodramatic and tedious in the extreme, with an improbable and ludicrous twist readers could never foresee, stealing even the fun of guessing the mystery from us. She's one author I was prepared to never read again. But because I really want this challenge to stretch my risk factor, I'm going to read her more recent offering, Once Upon a River.    

This will be one of my personal challenges for the coming year, and I'll start already without setting a time limit. Here's some personal evidence that second chances sometimes do pay off. I found J. D. Salinger's Franny and Zooey rather strange, and felt like I was reading it in a smog of smoke. But I enjoyed The Catcher in the Rye far more. And Daphne du Maurier's Rebecca fell flat for me, but Jamaica Inn was more to my liking. I hope you'll keep track of my personal progress, and if you dare to try the challenge yourself with books of your choice, please join in and let me know. 

Thursday, November 7, 2019

The Fantastic Tom Swifty

I'm busy getting ready for my daughter's 21st this weekend, and also trying to finish the last two Uni assignments of the year, which are due next week. It'll great to have spare time again, which is my favourite state of being. To fill a space, I've dug deep into my archives, and had a laugh at this one all over again. 

Tom Swift was the hero of a series of dime novels published early in the twentieth century. He was a young scientist who had adventures with the technology he created. Ostensibly written by an author named Victor Appleton, they came from the E.L. Stratemeyer writing syndicate. Different authors, including Edward Stratemeyer himself, sat at their desks creating Tom Swift stories. Down the track, a variety of authors were employed to keep churning them out. They were better businessmen than authors, because the books were poked fun at by readers for the variety of speech tags they put in their hero's mouth. Tom Swift rarely just 'said' anything. He declared, stammered, barked, exclaimed, sobbed, ejaculated, grinned, mumbled and sang, just for a start.

No doubt the authors thought this assortment of words added colour to their stories. Even I remember my Primary School class being told by teachers to think of something more descriptive than 'said'. They never twigged what a neat little word 'said' is. It's not a sign of laziness and lack of creativity. It's a gem, which enables readers' attention to flow and not be jarred from the story with every line of dialogue. Nowadays, decent editors recommend that writers simply use 'said.' The fact that Tom Swift authors were teased about not doing so proves the point.
Tom Swift and His Giant Robot  (Tom Swift Jr, #4)

Anyway, the critics of Tom Swift started parodies of the way the characters spoke, turning sentences into double meaning puns.

'There are one hundred lollies in the jar,' Tom recounted.
'I've decided to come back to the group,' Tom rejoined.
'We've struck oil,' Tom gushed.

The art of the Tom Swifty came to include adverbs, which were also way over-used in the stories. Many editors now advise us to use them sparingly. They handicap a story to snail pace as our eyes skim over the page. We simply don't need to be spoon fed the way in which a character delivers dialogue. The mood should be evident from what was said, without having to tell us that it was spoken snidely, sincerely, tearfully, mournfully or any other way.

Tom Swifties are a great fun way of sharpening our wit, and perhaps if we come up with enough of them, it might help us to weed out our own speech tags and adverbs, seeing how silly they are when taken to the extreme. Some examples I've come across from others include the following.

Tom Swift and His Rocket Ship  (Tom Swift Jr, #3)

'Will you lend me your pencil sharpener?' Tom asked bluntly.
'I'm no good at darts,' Tom said aimlessly.
'Lay your guns down,' Tom said disarmingly.
'Careful with the chainsaw,' Tom said offhandedly.
'I don't know what groceries to buy,' Tom said listlessly.

'Who turned out the lights?' Tom asked darkly.

I came up with some of my own.

'Pass me the sandpaper,' Tom said roughly.
'I want hot fudge on my sundae,' Tom said saucily.
'You don't have to dress up,' Tom said casually.
'I enjoy parachuting,' Tom said airily.
'You forgot to water my plants,' Tom said witheringly.
'I'd better get back to the shearing shed,' Tom said sheepishly.
'I'm always last to know,' Tom said belatedly.
'These suspenders will hold up your pants,' Tom said bracingly.
'There's a snowman in the garden,' Tom said frostily.
'I need a ruler to draw this graph,' Tom said rigidly.
'I want to pat that poodle,' Tom said doggedly.
'It's underwater,' Tom said sinkingly.
'There are bugs flying around everywhere,' Tom said waspishly.
'I'm the king,' Tom said majestically.
'Someone else has stripped all the apples from this tree,' Tom said fruitlessly.

And one for Harry Potter fans.

'I want to play Quidditch,' Tom said snitchily.

Now it's your turn, assuming I've convinced you that this is not a pointless activity ('I've lost the tip of my pen,' Tom said pointlessly). Are you game to see if you can add to my list?

Wednesday, October 30, 2019

Back to the Classics Challenge 2019 - Wrap Up

The Classics Challenge is done and dusted once again. I'm happy and quite surprised to have finished before the end of October, since it's been quite a busy year and some of these books are super long and challenging. As I've done in previous years, I'll give a quick wrap-up, and then award my personal bronze, silver and gold medals from the list. Thanks goes to Books and Chocolate for hosting the challenge. Here goes.   

A Nineteenth Century Classic - Our Mutual Friend by Charles Dickens

A Twentieth Century Classic - The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie by Muriel Spark

A Classic by a Woman - Mary Barton by Elizabeth Gaskell

A Classic in Translation - The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery

Classic Comedy - Cold Comfort Farm by Stella Gibbons

Classic Tragedy - Uncle Tom's Cabin by Harriet Beecher Stowe

Very Long Classic - War and Peace by Leo Tolstoy

Classic Novella - Strange Case of Doctor Jekyll and Mr Hyde by Robert Louis Stephenson

Classic from the Americas (includes the Caribbean) - Walden by Henry David Thoreau

Classic from Africa, Asia or Oceania (includes Australia) - The Magic Pudding by Norman Lindsay

Classic from a place you've lived - Sun on the Stubble by Colin Thiele

Classic Play - The Importance of Being Earnest by Oscar Wilde

Now for the drum roll 

Bronze Medal - The Little Prince
I never expected to be choosing this honor for a quirky little fable, but Antoine de Saint-Exupery plays on our heartstrings with perfect notes. Through the modest personas of a gorgeous desert fox and a bemused, faired-haired alien boy, he cuts straight to the chase and suggests what's amiss with our world. The gentle attitude tweaks we're encouraged to take on board have brought me a lot of satisfaction. It's basically to value the people closest to us, but what a unique and imaginative way he has of getting it through to us. He deserves our thanks, if any author does.

Silver Medal - Mary Barton
Before it ever became a literary no-no, Elizabeth Gaskell brought a mish-mash of different genres into one story that must have made its original audience wonder what just hit them. There's social commentary, romance, adventure, mystery, high courtroom drama, and so many near miss moments, you can just about hear them whizzing past your head. I've got to give her credit because it was her debut novel, and she clearly already knew that a pen can be used a wake-up tool to great effect.

Gold Medal - Our Mutual Friend
Charles Dickens gets the top honor in this year's list because it was his last completed novel, he had all his best literary techniques going for him, and skillfully weaved the River Thames through the lives of such a varied social class. And in real life, he was a survivor during a scary and horrific train smash, but managed to sneak back on board to rescue the latest installment of 'Our Mutual Friend' he'd been working on. That's dedication for us.

I've participated in this challenge often enough to predict there'll always be a few new favourites on every list. This was no exception.    

Friday, October 18, 2019

'The Other Alcott' by Elise Hooper

Elise Hooper’s debut novel conjures the fascinating, untold story of May Alcott—Louisa’s youngest sister and an artist in her own right.

We all know the story of the March sisters, heroines of Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women. But while everyone cheers on Jo March, based on Louisa herself, Amy March is often the least favorite sister. Now, it’s time to learn the truth about the real “Amy”, Louisa’s sister, May.

This is an excellent story based on the true life of Abigail May Alcott (May), the youngest sister of Louisa May Alcott. You might know her better as Amy March, the character she inspired. But the real May Alcott was a hard-working, talented artist with a fascinating life of her own, even though she's long been overshadowed by her more famous sister. I'm glad that Elise Hooper, who lives near their town of Concord and did heaps of research, has lifted the veil on May, as it deserves to be.

Related image
Okay, whenever I discuss Little Women with others, many friends brush Amy off as a spoiled, shallow, vain princess, and even claim to hate her. It makes me sad, because 'hate' is such a strong word, and there are far worse characters out there than Amy March, who actually makes several efforts to be a good person. Perhaps I relate to her as a fellow 'little sister' who understands the frustration of being left out of fun activities, and the humiliation of being teased for making faux pas, while trying to impress the older kids. I never burned my big sister's journal, but I can understand the sentiment behind it. And as for vanity, modern girls Amy's age are also trying to enhance their good looks. We don't have to search far for examples on social media. Come on girls, don't go for your facials, eyebrow sculpture or nail touch-ups, and then come home to criticise Amy for putting a peg on her nose.

I've often wondered whether Louisa May Alcott, the great Jo March herself, did her sister a rotten turn by depicting her in such a way that generations of readers would dislike her for decades, even centuries to come. In this novel, Louisa reasons that she was using Amy as a foil for Jo, and didn't think May would mind. Louisa comes across as a bit of a grouch, slightly resentful that she paid a high price for financial stability for her whole family. She never really wanted to write the moralistic, sentimental tales that took off so successfully, instead of the edgier crime thrillers she preferred. I'll always imagine Louisa the workaholic, gritting her teeth and writing to please others over herself. She was cynical and brusque, but I couldn't help liking her.

The two sisters had a loving relationship, but very strained at times. Louisa controlled the family purse strings, which was fair enough since she earned the money. So she financed some international painting tuition for May, but in return expected to call all the shots, such as deciding when May should drop everything and come home. She'd write, 'I've had my fill of looking after the old folk now, so I'm passing the baton on to you. Leave straight away.' When Louisa said 'Jump', May was forced to ask, 'How high?' It makes for some interesting Jo and Amy style home truths flying in letters across the ocean. ('You support me only so you may control me.') And we readers are detached enough to see both sides, and cheer when May does begin to earn her own money.

So now for May herself, the hero of the book. She's a fresh and delightful character full of enthusiasm to give her own passion a good shot. Several misgivings come to the surface of her mind, which she works through. She wonders if she really has enough of the family's obsessive streak to consider herself legitimate. (If you're a hardcore Alcott fan, you'll remember that their dad, Bronson, was intense and fanatical too. See my review of March.) Or whether she needs some sort of deep meaningful political cause to prop up her art, rather than letting her plain and simple love of beauty be the driving force. Listening to her dad, big sis and lots of other critical voices out there gave May a lofty standard and heavy burden she later wondered if she really needed to take on board.

But May befriends some notable people from history, such as Mary Cassatt, a disgruntled artist who took a huge risk by joining the Impressionists. Mary wanted the freedom to experiment with the new style she enjoyed, rather than adapting her work to suit the rigid rules of the establishment of the day. Her rebel outlook, so to speak, gives May a lot to think about.

Image result for may alcott artThe glimpse we get of May Alcott as a cougar is very cool. At the ripe old age of 38, she falls for Ernest Nieriker, a lad of 22, and they get married. Her sister Louisa suspects the young man's motives and writes, 'I must inform you the inevitable interruptions that beset the life of a wife interfere with her art.' But May goes for it anyway, in a very satisfying part of the story. Her most well-known painting, of the young girl with the orange head scarf and white dress, was painted around this time.

It's a haunting book that sticks in my mind, just for knowing the characters were real, and the end leaves us wondering about the nature of true success. The prickly Louisa was the focused story-machine we all remember, who brought us such beloved characters as Jo March. But I can't help feeling that May might have embodied more the idea of success I'm coming to appreciate the older I get. She hurt nobody, and made her gentle mark on the world in a way that satisfied her soul. She didn't live a long life, but gave it all the energy and enthusiasm she could muster, without focusing on her work at the expense of everything else that could make for a satisfying life. Right up until her untimely death, she was doing all the things she loved most. A real reminder for us to do the same.

You may like my reviews of Little Women and Good Wives I've also reviewed March by Geraldine Brooks, who anyone who may be interested in a fairly frank and brutal Civil War faction about the girls' father Mr March (or Bronson Alcott in actual fact). And I've tackled the question of falling for a best friend's little sister if you're interested in the Amy/Laurie romance plot of the series. I wasn't a big fan myself.


Monday, October 14, 2019

'The Prince and the Pauper' by Mark Twain

This treasured historical satire, played out in two very different socioeconomic worlds of 16th-century England, centers around the lives of two boys born in London on the same day: Edward, Prince of Wales and Tom Canty, a street beggar. During a chance encounter, the two realize they are identical and, as a lark, decide to exchange clothes and roles--a situation that briefly, but drastically, alters the lives of both youngsters. The Prince, dressed in rags, wanders about the city's boisterous neighborhoods among the lower classes and endures a series of hardships; meanwhile, poor Tom, now living with the royals, is constantly filled with the dread of being discovered for who and what he really is.

Two babies are born on the same day in Medieval London. One isn't wanted at all, since he's an extra mouth to feed. The other is longed for with bated breath by the whole country. The first is a little beggar named Tom Canty who lives in a slum on Offal Lane. The second is Edward Tudor, son of Henry VIII. And not only do the two boys share the same birthday, but grow up to be doppelgangers.

Mark Twain has written a cute regal fan fiction, in which two ten-year-olds meet unexpectedly and decide to switch places for a short time. They each want a quick taste of how the other side lives, since neither are happy with the restrictions they are forced to endure. So they swap clothes and go off on their merry ways, but the stunt backfires badly on both of them.

It comes as a total shock when they want to stop playing, but nobody will believe them and take them home. It reminds me of long ago days when I used to pretend to be somebody else, but my parents never bought it either. In the case of these boys, those closest to them assume they've gone bonkers, when they keep being so earnest. Sudden madness is a far-fetched affliction that doesn't happen often, right? But it turns out to be far more credible than a pact with a person at the other end of the social pecking order. So both boys seem to be stuck in a new lifestyle neither of them really want, and it looks like it's going to be permanent. Ooops!

Then King Henry dies, while the new little king is out copping abuse from the rough end of his kingdom, and still nobody twigs. All the while some little gutter snipe is getting prepared for his coronation.

The plot switches back and forth between them, focusing slightly more on Edward's adventures out in the great wide world, than Tom's experience in the Castle. Tom strikes me as the wiser of the pair. He figures out pretty quickly that he'd better learn to impersonate the prince if he wants an easy time. But Edward keeps getting clobbered because he won't stop insisting that he's the king of England, and expects to be treated accordingly by thugs, thieves and desperadoes. There's a very fine, almost transparent line, between bold honesty and a serious lack of judgement. Come on mate, it should be clear that nobody is going to buy the truth, so you'd better pretend to be Tom, at least for a time!

The guy I consider the hero of the whole tale is neither of the little whipper-snappers, but Miles Hendon, a down-on-his-luck young noble man who's been totally screwed over by his own family. He stumbles across young Edward, pities him and decides to become the poor little waif's self-appointed elder brother. It's the best thing that could happen, and saves Edward's life on several occasions. Miles is ultra-sympathetic, super-cheerful, patient and smart to boot. He's always saving the day, but sheepishly and comically enough not to come across as one of those Mr Perfects. (Which maybe does make him perfect.) Curiosity about how his personal predicament will work itself out saves the book from the straight predictability of the two boys. What a legend he is.

I like to read a few other reviews after forming the gist of mine. This little novel has loads of people complaining about the difficult dialogue, since Mark Twain wrote it to match the speech patterns of the time it was set. Nobody said this directly, but in effect, these reviewers are demanding, 'Please dumb it down for us.' Come on, fellow readers, let's man up! It's honestly not that hard. Twain hasn't used Tudor English to the letter, or it would be incomprehensible. Just enough to give his story a beautiful touch of authenticity. If we're willing to enter into the spirit of the Middle Ages, let's do it as wholeheartedly as they would, and stop demanding to be coddled with contemporary English. If we read it aloud with our kids, it's the perfect opportunity to show them that the English language is a rich, evolving entity, and not static and stale. For example, I wish 'mooncalf' was an insult that lasted the distance to the twenty-first century. It's such a descriptive word.

 So it's a simple story, but with a fairly provocative theme of how allegiance can be given based on a person's pedigree rather than his good character. Even though we live in more of a meritocracy now (which has its own problems) there's still plenty of name dropping and social climbing in our era. Word-of-mouth commendations based on who we know still give people extra boosts and lucky breaks that others inevitably miss. Yet after a few hiccups, Tom ended up pulling off Edward's role flawlessly enough to be widely believed. Maybe it's Twain's reminder that even nobodies may really step up if we're given the opportunity.

Even though I expected a little fairy-tale about the grass being greener on the other side of the fence, there's a bit more to it, and it's quite a cool little read.


Monday, October 7, 2019

Famous Headless Characters

October is Halloween month, perfect for lists with a macabre twist. Headless characters fits the bill. For the sake of staying reasonably upbeat, I decided not to include historical figures, such as John the Baptist, Goliath and Anne Boleyn. I'm confining it to people whose headless state doesn't prevent them going about their normal business.

When I use the word 'headless' that also extends to 'bodyless' for there are two categories of people in this list. a) Walking torsos without their heads, and b) Dismembered heads without their torsos and limbs.

1) The Legend of Sleepy Hollow
It's an American classic. The little town is said to be haunted by the ghost of a horseman whose head had been blown off by a cannon during the Revolutionary War. He kept hold of it though, to make a formidable weapon. One dark night, school master Ichabod Crane is returning home from a party, when he's confronted by the ghost, which removes its head from the saddle in front of him, and hurls it straight into Ichabod's face. Poor Ichabod is never seen again.

2) Nearly Headless Nick

Sir Nicholas de Mimsy-Porpington is the good-natured Hogwarts ghost of Gryffindor House. His execution had been botched up, leaving his head still attached to his neck by a thin thread of sinew. This frustrates Nick no end when his application to join the Headless Hunt is denied by Sir Patrick Delaney-Podmore, who will only accept contenders whose heads have been completely severed. Nicholas' 'death day' happens to be October 31st, and he invites Harry, Ron and Hermione to a sombre sort of party to celebrate it.

3) Harry Potter
There's another accidental incident, when Harry's supposedly floating head is spotted at Hogsmeade by Draco Malfoy. It gives Draco a tremendous scare, since he doesn't realise Harry is wearing his invisibility cloak. Harry's head just happens to poke out at one point during a tussle with him, Crabbe and Goyle. Harry gets in trouble with Professor Snape, but the chance to freak out Malfoy and his Slytherin cronies is almost worth it. (See here for more about these sworn enemies.)

4) Library of Souls
In this third volume of Miss Peregrine's Peculiar Children, there's a row of severed heads on pikes guarding the bridge to the evil wights' headquarters. Although they appear very menacing and fierce, their limitations are clear when Jacob, Emma and Addison are brave enough to attempt to cross the bridge. The heads realise they're in no position to do anything but yell down empty threats. Nobody has ever put them to the test before. My review is here.

5) Engelbert
Talking about Ransom Riggs' quirky characters, this young man from Tales of the Peculiar has the ability to disattach his head from his neck and screw it on again whenever he pleases. He lived long ago in a band comprised of some of the very first Peculiars in history. Engelbert is so used to his special knack that he's pretty casual about it, and tends to forget that it frightens people. He has to do a lot of apologising. (See here for more about these quirky tales.)

6) The Cheshire Cat

He's a very cool character from Wonderland who can fade away gradually until only his head remains, and eventually nothing more than his cheesy grin. He's a puzzle to the aggressive Queen of Hearts, who orders heads to be chopped off whenever she loses her cool. The executioners try to reason that since they can't see the body the cat's head is attached to, her demand to chop it off will be hard to carry out. (See here for my review)

7) The Young Ones
Here's a blast from the past for eighties kids who used to watch this program. Remember when punky Vyvyan had his head knocked off from a train window? His body goes blindly lumbering out to search for it along the track, and when he finally stumbles across it, it berates him for taking his time. That was just the sort of crazy scenario you could expect from The Young Ones. And fans kept tuning in for more. (Also see Famous Stories with Trains and Railways.)

8) Futurama
Spare for a thought for the preserved heads of famous celebrities and US Presidents in jars which belong in the Head Museum. Philip J Fry feeds them as part of his night job. On one occasion, he and the gang become drunk and accidentally ingest the heads' pickling fluid, which sends them back to the time periods in which the heads belonged. (For more about the antics on Futurama, see here.)

9) The Wizard of Oz
He was doing it with smoke and mirrors, but one form the great ruler of the land of Oz liked to assume for direct interviews with Dorothy and her friends was a great head, just looming there in front of them. No doubt he thought it would make a huge impact. And he was surely correct. (See my review.)

10) The Enchanted Head
This one is the hero of an unusual romance found in Andrew Lang's Brown Fairy Book. A beautiful sultan's daughter falls in love with a head on a platter, but he's a very handsome head with all his wits about him, and he can jump, roll and dance like a pro. They are both very happy together, especially when he reveals to his bride that each night, he's allowed to get his body back. It's their special secret.

11) The Blemmyes
These tribal people kept popping up in legends over the centuries. They were (or are) a strange race of headless folk with eyes in their shoulders and mouths in their chest, also known as the Ewaipanoma. Some pretty illustrious people, such as Sir Walter Raleigh, were certain they existed, and a chieftain's son during the Elizabethan era claimed to have been captured by the Blemmyes and managed to escape. Apparently their lack of heads made no difference to their amazing skill with bows and clubs.

12) William Laud
He was a rather harsh Archbishop of Canterbury from the mid 1600s, who made dangerous enemies of prominent Puritans. Laud was eventually beheaded for treason, but is rumoured to haunt the library of St John's College at Oxford to this day. He supposedly appears with a candle in his hand, kicking his own head along the floor. If I happened to be a student and heard a bowling ball sound, I wouldn't hang around to investigate! In fact, I think I'd pack up my books long before dark.

Please let us know if you're fond of any of these headless folk, or their tales. And of course, tell us if there any others I've missed which might be added to the list.

Thursday, October 3, 2019

'Sun on the Stubble' by Colin Thiele

Bruno Gunther lives on a farm in South Australia, where adventures spring up like wheat shoots.

He has to cope with his stern Dad, his Mother and family - and trickiest of all is the new teacher in town, who is too alert for comfort. Then there are the local arguments, that all seem to flare up around complicated bits of machinery, like water pumps and cars.

All they really need is a little help from Bruno to sort everything out...

This is my pick for the Classic From a Place you've Lived category of the 2019 Back to the Classics Challenge. It was challenging indeed, as there really aren't many choices. I've only ever lived in South Australia, which is a beautiful corner of the world, but hasn't an abundance of well known stories associated with it. I fell back on the great Colin Thiele, whose kids' and Y.A. novels have pleased generations of readers.

I chose this novel because of nostalgia. My Year 7 teacher, Mr Schwidder, read it to the class, and we used to all almost roll around on the floor laughing. With a German heritage himself, he would put on comic accents to suit the characters, especially 'Dad.' They were descendants of nineteenth century Germans who fled their homeland to escape religious persecution and have a fresh start in the new colony of South Australia. Several of my ancestors shared the same background, so the story was meaningful even back then.

Also, my older brother highly recommended it at the time, and he was no reader. He claimed it was the only novel that ever held his attention through to the finish, (and I'd be willing to bet that's still the case). That held great weight with me as a twelve-year-old.

So the story was published in 1961, but set in the 1930's or 40's. Bruno Gunther is the youngest son; a twelve-year-old who lives with his hard-working family on a farm in a fictional place called 'Nagapalee' which could be any small South Aussie bush town. Each chapter focuses on an episode around work, school, sport and social times. It starts off when Bruno brings a possum into the house to show off, and his prowess backfires on him when it panics and trashes the kitchen. But later, he's instrumental in helping catch a couple of dangerous crooks who have been stealing sheep and wood. There was no electricity in their house, although some city relatives had it. Bruno and his brother Victor shared a bedroom, and loved listening to their primitive old wireless with headphones. Adelaide is the nearest big city, and at the end, poor Bruno is on his way to attend boarding school there.

In some ways, its structure reminds me of an Aussie version of another classic I re-read not so long ago; Laura Ingalls Wilder's Farmer Boy. There are some huge differences though, the main one being the characterisation of the two respective fathers. Almanzo's father, James Wilder, is one of those super-dads whose every word is taken by his respectful kids as an oracle. He was depicted as the true head of the family. But here we have Marcus Gunther, who is more of a Basil Fawlty clone, fiery, overbearing and totally reactive. The undignified and embarrassing things that happen to him is one of the book's biggest sources of mirth and delight. It would seem good old Tall Poppy syndrome has been a big feature of rural Australia for a long time.

Bruno himself is a very likable young hero, who loves to spend his spare time climbing trees after birds nests, hawk's nests and possum hollows. He also traps rabbits for a bit of pocket money. Well, my sons enjoyed similar quests at his age, but theirs were virtual reality, done in front of computer screens in their bedrooms. I know that's sort of sad, but there's no stopping progress, and each era has its own positive characteristics. I've no doubt Bruno and his brothers would have been sucked right into the online era, had they lived in the 21st century. Back then, it was surely, 'Come inside and do some work,' while now it's more like, 'Go outside and get some fresh air.' As a modern parent, I can't deny it, although I'd hate to come across as one of those pests who enjoy paying the younger generation out, because I'm really not that person. (Besides, they're referred to as 'Boomers', and I'm too young. I'm Gen X, thanks very much.) I can relate a bit to Emma Gunther, the mother in this novel, with her big heart and fearful imagination, always latching on to worst case scenarios. So one thing that never changes is the heart of a mother.

It was nice to return to this story for the first time since my tweenie years, because it reminded me how times have changed, and helped reacquaint me with the upper Primary kid that used to be me.

(Now that I'm on the topic of my deep South Aussie roots, you might enjoy this reflection featuring the beautiful place, called Let's Bloom where we're Planted.)

🌟🌟🌟½ (probably 5 from my 12-yo self)

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

'Watership Down' by Richard Adams

Set in England's Downs, a once idyllic rural landscape, this stirring tale of adventure, courage and survival follows a band of very special creatures on their flight from the intrusion of man and the certain destruction of their home. Led by a stouthearted pair of friends, they journey forth from their native Sandleford Warren through the harrowing trials posed by predators and adversaries, to a mysterious promised land and a more perfect society.

My family can't always understand my reading choices. When he saw my current read, my oldest son said, 'Isn't that a bloodbath about rabbits killing each other?' I guess he's partly right, but that sentence falls far short of the epic this is. It's one of my favourite reads this year, and I'll never look at wild bunnies in quite the same way again. I love and appreciate each of the main characters like family members. It's easy to get totally sucked in to their journey, and even now, I'm humming Art Garfunkel's 'Bright Eyes', which was written as a sound track for this story.

Here's how it all goes down. Little Fiver was the runt of his litter, and holds no sway with the others at all, but he does have a rare gift of prophecy that enables him to foresee big trouble heading for his warren. (Readers are told upfront that residential developers have claimed the area for housing.) Fiver's older brother Hazel is the only one who'll listen, since he's seen Fiver's gift in action before. When the big chief brushes off their warning, they muster a small group of a dozen who dash for freedom in the nick of time. The rest of the novel recounts their adventures and perils.

While enjoying the hospitality of an aristocratic, super-sleek dude named Cowslip, they learn a shocking secret about his burrow. Later, they make the valuable friendship of Kehaar, a very cool black-headed seagull. Then later again, they come across Efrafa, the totalitarian regime of a controlling fuhrer rabbit named General Woundwort. All through the story, young Hazel, though not the smartest or strongest, proves himself to be a generous, big-hearted and able leader of their own little group.

I actually think it should be a compulsory read for wannabe chiefs rather than dry old text books. Anyone aspiring for a leadership role should study Hazel's successful approach. It's not just that he's level-headed, tactful, decisive and humble, although he's certainly all that. Hazel's biggest strength is recognising the unique strengths of his team members, and acknowledging ways in which they're superior to him. It's the very best skill to have. They all know that his directions are based on his interest in them as people, and respect him for it, grudgingly or otherwise.

And what a team it is! Fiver is the runt, but they'd be nowhere without his gift of second sight. Blackberry's innovative mind squeezes them out of many scary jams, and Dandelion, their storyteller, understands the importance of a strong tradition of myths and legends to keep a group's morale high. Even Bluebell, with his sassy one-liners, provides the quick wit that can boost the spirits, or at least the retaliative energy, of the whole company. Perhaps most of all, I love the gutsy Bigwig, who has more courage in his furry body than dozens of other literary heroes have all together! Seriously, what a guy! Together, under Hazel's wise and caring leadership, they each pool their individual resources to make one super rabbit body.

Richard Adams declares in his intro that he never intended the novel to be some sort of allegory or parable, but simply a tale about rabbits that he made up to amuse his daughters in the car. Well, sorry Richard! Sometimes readers must override an author's opinion and hijack a story for ourselves. This book is teeming with parallels and allegories for those of us who enjoy spotting them.

There's the Old Testament Exodus sentiment from the very start, when two brothers (Hazel and Fiver in this case) approach a mighty leader to appeal for the people's release, only to be mocked and refused. Then there's the Pilgrim's Progress momentum in the journey itself, which keeps us sticking with our small group, knowing that when they find what they're looking for, we'll sense the rightness in our own hearts too.

And there are several political and social analogies we can't help snapping up as mirrors of human nature. The rabbit 'owslas' or police forces are pecking orders of henchmen surrounding a chief. We can tell that each rabbit in the owsla appreciates his position of privilege, and secretly laps up the prestige directed his way. But the great warrens of Efrafa have turned sour under the leadership of General Woundwort, a dictator in the truest sense of the word. He clearly needs to be taken down, but genuinely believes that he's doing all the rabbits under his dominion a favour, by keeping them safe from harm. Instead, his radical restrictions are actually curtailing their fulness of life and causing them harm instead.

Overall, I think the biggest appeal for me is the dignity and relatability of the characters. In the grand scheme of things, aren't we humans a lot like Hazel's gang? We're edgy, vulnerable and a tad jumpy in our big wide world of threats and insecurity. We fear our own brand of 'elil' or enemies that lurk in shadows and may try to cut us down at any moment. But day after day, we rise up to keep going, clinging to friends who have proven true, and boldly trying to take a stand for what we deem important.

I have to call it one of those rare books I'd recommend to anybody. You must add it to your reading lists, it's so fresh and inspiring.

🌟🌟🌟🌟🌟 or more like 🐰🐰🐰🐰🐰

Monday, September 16, 2019

Totally Different, But Exactly the Same

I recently read Kazuo Ishiguro's The Remains of the Day, which reminded me strongly of another novel I read earlier in the year. After some head scratching, I realised it was The Catcher in the Rye by J.D. Salinger. At first I wondered how I could have missed it, the parallels are so striking. Both stories are set in the same decade, the 1950's, and the chief plot take place in under a week. In both cases, the main character sets off on a short journey. Holden Caulfield decides to skip school, so he can hang out in the city before going home to his family. And Stevens the butler has been given generous leave from his employer to take a driving holiday, and decides to visit an old friend. But most of all, both main characters narrate their stories in a similar manner as they travel. They each deliver streams of consciousness, in which sudden memories pop into their heads, and tug the stories into all sorts of meandering and revealing deviations, and dense backstory.

So overall, the biggest factor in common seems to be the resemblance of the two main characters. But hold on a minute! The more I think about that, the more totally crazy it seems. Nobody could possibly be more dissimilar than these two guys. Surely they are poles apart. The evidence of this is overwhelming.   

1) Stevens is a senior gentleman, and Holden is a 16-year-old.
2) Stevens takes every implicit social rule totally seriously, while Holden finds holes in everything, and takes no establishment seriously at all.
3) Stevens is fully committed to his post, and Holden is a free spirit, committed to nothing.
4) The decorous Stevens would never do anything that would raise an eyebrow, but sassy Holden has just been expelled from school.
5) Holden is attracted to girls, and attends a dance, hoping to strike it lucky with a one-night-stand. Stevens considers himself way removed from thoughts of romance at all, since it would take the focus off his all-important job.
6) Stevens doubts he'll ever pick up the knack of banter to suit his new employer, while Holden's smart-alec comments have long been his facade.
7) Stevens takes every opportunity to shovel pomp and ceremony on for appearance sake. Holden detests anything that remotely reeks of phoniness.
8) Stevens is the ultimate conformer, and Holden is the ultimate rebel.
9) Stevens is the sort of guy Holden would roll his eyes at, and maybe even despise for adding to all the pretension and snobbery at large in the world. And Holden would be way below Stevens' notice.

So why do these two main characters, polar opposites in almost every way, remind me of each other? I think it's because their minds keep skittering back to their deepest regrets, which sets them off trying to justify the inevitable self-recrimination that floods in. Then they each think out long and convincing rationales and justifications to help them hold their emotional pain at arm's length. These male protagonists stand for totally different values, yet in their innermost hearts, they're pretty identical. It makes me wonder whether we'd find this touching vulnerability true of most people, if only we'd give them a chance.

There are such big implications for us readers, who follow the circuitous reasoning and storytelling of both Stevens and Holden with sympathy and liking. Even though their personal ethics and priorities are each the inverse of the other, we are willing to spend the hours with them that it takes to read the books. If we can like two polar opposites, maybe we can like anybody, if we catch the fleeting common denominator that often remains hidden. I believe I've struck one of the benefits of reading novels. I'm beginning to think that anyone who claims to be a serious fiction reader surely can't hold grudges, form prejudice, or make snap judgments as easily as those who aren't. It must to occur to us some time that those we find most annoying or hard to understand, are possibly just the same as us where it counts.

Has this struck you the same way, along your reading journey?

Friday, September 6, 2019

'The Remains of the Day' by Kazuo Ishiguro

In the summer of 1956, Stevens, a long-serving butler at Darlington Hall, decides to take a motoring trip through the West Country. The six-day excursion becomes a journey into the past of Stevens and England, a past that takes in fascism, two world wars, and an unrealised love between the butler and his housekeeper. 

I'd never read anything by Kazuo Ishiguro before, so picked it up when I saw it at the library. It's a stream of consciousness narrative by Stevens, the butler. His employer, Mr Farraday, has offered him a chance to take a driving break for a week. He decides to spend it by visiting Miss Kenton, a former head of household staff. Stevens wants to see if she'd consider coming back to resume her old post, since she's indicated her marriage may be shaky. On the way, he records some events that happen to him along the road, and also reminisces lots about days gone by. So the story lapses into frequent flashbacks.

Stevens turns out to be one of those super-polished butlers who live out their role 24/7. He refuses to let his personal life spill into his job, and slams so many doors, there's really no personal life left to seep in anyway. Brilliant British butlers were all about never being shaken out of their professional roles. He believes that a butler of any calibre must be seen to inhabit his post, and not take it on and off like a pantomime costume, and that only the British have the correct dignity and restraint to make the job an art form. Those of other nations were really only second-rate manservants, but the Brits were butlers to the core. So he reaches a point where he's stiff and starched even in his down-hours, which to Stevens, is a mark of total success.

Butlers also took great pride in accepting posts only from masters whose work they could totally respect and support, and Stevens has devoted most of his life to his former employer, Lord Darlington, who passed away three years previously. The poshest butlers are really serious about reflecting the glory of the great men they serve. In such a way, they consider themselves contributing their own input to world affairs. The bulk of Stevens' memories take place between the two World Wars, when Lord Darlington was sympathising with the Germans, who had such a huge financial and economic burden to carry because of the rough terms of the Versailles treaty. Nobody had a clue that certain unscrupulous Nazi's would take advantage of this simple man's generosity and manipulate it for their own purposes.

So what happens when the cause to which you've devoted your life turns out to have a shaky foundation? As the plot unfolds through flashbacks, we see how Lord Darlington, used as tool by the wrong hands, lived to be discredited and taken-down. His memory is an embarrassment to those who knew him, so should that reflect on Stevens too? He wonders if Lord Darlington's fall from grace means that he's wasted his own life.

Kazuo Ishiguro does a great job of getting Stevens to ponder these questions in such a subconscious way that he hardly realises he's even thinking along these lines. The occasions when he flatly denies ever having even worked for Lord Darlington are quickly explained away with some conscious rationale. And Stevens questions may apply to us readers, or at least get us thinking. Does misplaced zeal for anything mean that we've wasted heaps of time, or even squandered our lives?

Another regret Stevens skirts around is having wasted every opportunity for a deeper relationship with Miss Kenton. The memories he digs up shows that there was definitely a mutual attraction, but both were unwilling to take the plunge over the lines of respectability of their professional roles. Twenty years further on, it's a case of accepting the choices they believed were best at the time, and the lives they led to. They each shape their philosophy to equip them to handle the rest of their days with optimism.

Miss Kenton says, 'One cannot be forever dwelling on what might have been. One should realise one has as good a life as most, perhaps better, and be grateful.'

As for Stevens, he finally shapes his vague misgiving into words. 'I'll try to make the best of what remains of my day. What can we ever gain by looking back and blaming ourselves if our lives haven't turned out quite as we might have wished?' He decides that big sacrifices must be made wholeheartedly, and should be a cause for pride and contentment regardless of results.

It's a nostalgic but melancholic sort of novel that sets us pondering where our own priorities should lie. For me, they've never been about work first, and never will be. I prefer Pip's old chum Mr Wemmick from Great Expectations as a role model for a good work/leisure balance, and definitely not poor old Stevens. I haven't seen the movie, with Anthony Hopkins and Emma Thompson, but since it was nominated for eight Academy Awards, I'm wondering if I should.